One set of people management skills actually matters

People Management Skills

Insofar as executives give a crap about managerial skills aside from “Does he/she make money,” there is one set of people management skills that seems to matter more than anything. Well, yes — the value of assigning context to the work, then ranking the work in order of priority — those things are important.

Here, though, we’re going to hit an entirely different target.

People management skills … and business journalism that actually works

Most business journalism is completely buzzword-laden fluff. If a middle manager read it and was trying to be better at their job, they might actually finish the article and be worse. (And that’s hard, because most middle managers are pretty bad as is.)

Not so, though, with this new article from MIT called “Saving Money Through Structured Problem-Solving.” Seems like a noble goal overall, and the article is really good. It walks through a specific sequence of a company trying to figure out their financials. It’s real step-by-step and point-by-point, so essentially actionable. Most business journalism is trash. Anyway.

The main protagonist of the story, a manager named Mike, decides to go actually observe some of his people in the shop and figure out the problem. And:

Perhaps most notably, Mike observed that the main corrugator machine stopped at 11:30 a.m. Assuming it was an unplanned outage, Mike rushed to the machine only to learn that the machine was stopped every day at lunch. Stopping and restarting the machine at lunchtime not only decreased productivity but also increased the probability of both damage to paper and mechanical problems. Interestingly, the lunch break turned out to be a response that had been instituted years ago in response to instability in the electric power provided by the local utility — a problem that had been fixed long ago.

Hmmm. So a machine is being stopped every day. Alright.

What does this have to do with people management skills?

Well, here’s the next paragraph of the same article:

Such seemingly obvious problems might lead one to think that the plant was poorly run. To the contrary, this is often exactly what happens when a work process is regularly executed by a dedicated and experienced staff. An experienced team increases efficiency, but those gains come at the cost of not noticing the many little workarounds and accommodations that we all have learned to make over the years to get things done. We have discovered similarly “obvious” issues in almost every piece of work we have ever studied, and it is the rare organization that has used structured problem-solving techniques with sufficient intensity to exercise all the easy improvement opportunities.

The whole concept we’re discussing here is called “homophily,” or teams being together so long that everyone just keeps saying “that’s how it’s always been done!”

So how can this all improve our people management skills?

Basic lesson of all this: if you want to understand what’s going on in your business, you gotta do two basic things.

  1. Talk to people.
  2. Actually leave your office/HQ and observe what is happening around the business.

We gussy up the idea of management/leadership/people management skills in 30 different buzzwords: purpose, mission, vision, etc. Those things are important, yes, but it’s hard to care about them during a workday. There are targets to hit and money to be acquired. Who really has time for “purpose?” This is why most managers are so bad: they should care about people, but instead they have to care almost universally about KPIs. A true shame.


The intersection point where this can better is the story above. Go talk to people and observe actions. You will learn about your business (good), and you will also connect with other people (good). In the process, you have improved your people management skills.

The flip side would be … 

Bad people management skills might look like this:

  • Sit in your office all day
  • Make a host of assumptions about your business, many of which stopped being true in July 2002
  • During performance review season, hide behind a portal
  • Constantly tell everyone how slammed you are, leaving at 3:15pm most days
  • Repeatedly get a direct report’s name wrong in emails
  • Etc

The unfortunate reality is that most managers — maybe 82 percent of them — are closer to the bulleted list than Mike inspecting his factory. And that’s why people management skills probably ain’t walking through that door anytime soon.

Ted Bauer

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